Temporal Distance and Morality: Moral Concerns Loom Larger in the Distant Future

University dissertation from Department of Psychology, Lund University

Abstract: The aim of this dissertation was to examine whether the temporal distance of moral events affects the moral judgments and decisions people make in response to those events. Drawing upon Construal Level Theory (CLT; Trope & Liberman, 2003) which posits that the distant future is represented at a higher, more abstract level of mental construal than the near future, and that high-level mental construals shift attention to core values and higher-order principles, the main proposition of this dissertation was that people would show greater moral concerns in response to distant future events than near future events. Additionally, based on the assumption that certain moral values (e.g., justice) are more abstractly construed than others (e.g., care), it was predicted that more abstract moral principles should receive more weight with greater temporal distance from moral dilemmas. Study I examined whether people’s mental representations and resolutions of moral dilemmas are increasingly based on abstract principles of fairness, and rights (justice morality) than on human relations, responsibilities, and context dependent factors (care morality) when the same dilemmas are framed in a distant as compared to near future time perspective. On a general level, this prediction was not supported since only females, and not males, showed the anticipated increase in justice-oriented moral judgments and reasoning when contemplating distant vs. near future dilemmas, raising the question whether the notions of justice and care are construed at different levels of abstraction by the genders. In Study II the main goal was to test the prediction that people would react more negatively to and thus attribute greater moral blame to other individuals who fail to act altruistically in the distant vs. near future. The results from several experiments using different scenarios and manipulations of temporal distance supported this conjecture. Furthermore, consistent with CLT, temporally distant actions were found to be increasingly attributed to abstract, dispositional causes relative to concrete, situational causes, and this partially accounted for the greater moral blame attributed to distant future actions. Extending this logic, it was further predicted that distant future altruistic behavior would be perceived as more praiseworthy than near future altruistic behavior. This prediction was also supported (Experiment 4). Study III examined the effect of temporal distance on moral concerns in situations where selfish motives clash with altruistic concerns. As predicted, the results from five experiments showed that people indicated they would be more prone to choose altruistic over selfish behaviors, reported they would feel more guilty about engaging in selfish behavior, thought acting selfishly would be more immoral, and were more likely to actually commit to altruistic behavior when thinking about distant vs. near future events. Moreover, as predicted, temporal distance primarily enhanced moral concerns among individuals high in moral value strength. Support was further obtained in favor of the CLT-derived assumption that moral value salience would be responsible for the temporal distance effect on moral concerns. Practical and theoretical implications of the present dissertation are discussed.

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